President Pervez Musharraf claims he's declared a state of emergency to return stability to Pakistan. But most believe the controversial step will just edge this increasingly unhinged nation yet closer to the brink.
In a televised speech, the military leader said he suspended the constitution in order to better cope with a spreading pro-Taliban insurgency.
"Extremism has created a dangerous challenge to the existence of our nation," he said in a late-night address. "Now it's time for us to make very difficult and painful decisions."
Although he laid out plans to go after the extremists, Musharraf's decision to invoke emergency rule appears to have galvanized the country's moderates against him.
On Saturday evening, as police and paramilitary troops fanned out across Islamabad, soldiers burst into the Supreme Court and whisked away seven justices who refused to take an oath under the provisional constitutional order that Musharraf issued.
Police also rounded up opposition leaders, lawyers and pro-democracy advocates who have been agitating for months for an end to military rule.
One of the first to be arrested was Aitzaz Ahsan, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. He's been a leading public figure calling for Musharraf's ouster.
"One man has taken entire nation hostage," Ahsan told reporters as he was muscled into the paddy wagon. "The time has come for Gen. Musharraf to go."
Local television networks reported similar defiance from judges at provincial high courts around the country. The government abruptly blocked their transmissions.
Meanwhile, lawyers, opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists vowed to step up their campaign to bring down the ruling junta.
To prevent protestors from descending on the capital, police blocked the roads leading in and out of Islamabad. Phone and Internet service was briefly cut.
Pakistanis saw the move as an increasingly desperate bid to hold onto power by a leader whose approval ratings have plummeted.
Many here oppose Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led war on terror, worry about a bloody streak of suicide bombings, and are struggling under soaring prices on basic consumer goods.
The past six months have brought unprecedented turmoil. Security forces have clashed with religious students in the capital, and are battling pro-Taliban militants across the northwest frontier.
"This country is already suffering crisis after crisis," said baker Sayed Sultan Hussain Kasmi, as he scooped unleavened bread from a tandoor oven. "This is yet another one."
In the coming days, the Supreme Court was set to rule on Musharraf's eligibility to serve both as army chief and president. Legal experts say Pakistan's constitution clearly forbids him from holding both positions at once.
"He did this to save his own skin because the law was against him," said Ashan Iqbal, a spokesman for the opposition faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
In September, the PML leader Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf ousted in a coup eight years ago, tried to return home from exile to launch a campaign for democracy. The military ruler swiftly had him re-deported to Saudi Arabia.
Another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was planning to sweep into Islamabad Sunday to rally support for a return to civilian rule, according to her spokesman.